The CEO of London Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye, said yesterday that it is physically impossible to introduce social distancing at airports. He suggested that making air travel safe would take a better solution such as the wearing of masks and health screening at the entrance to terminals.
Social distancing is not a solution for airports
Mr Holland-Kaye has warned in an interview carried by the BBC that social distancing is impossible to implement at airports with any volume of passengers. He went on to say that,
“Social distancing does not work in any form of public transport, let alone aviation.”
With 450 people trying to board a plane at once, staying the recommended distance apart would mean a kilometer-long queue.
If social distancing is needed, it’s not about how many passengers the plane can carry, it’s more to do with the number of passengers that can be safely moved through the airport. Mr Holland-Kaye said that until a COVID-19 vaccine is available and as lockdown conditions begin to ease, measures to minimize the risk of infection would need to be introduced by airports.
Union says distancing must be enforced
The GMB union has disagreed with the CEO’s warning, saying that passengers and staff must be protected by enforcing social distancing. It said that workers are afraid of getting COVID-19 from people traveling from destinations where the virus is prevalent. Three of the union’s members have died from the coronavirus in the last two weeks.
The union drew attention to an incident at Heathrow this week where two flights from the same origin landed at the same time. Only one carousel was allocated resulting in up to 500 passengers waiting to collect baggage with no social distancing being enforced. GMB London organizer, Trevlyn McCleod said,
“These are not safe conditions for passengers and they are not safe conditions for our members.”
Health screening at airports
The Telegraph reports Mr Holland-Kaye as calling for a better solution than social distancing such as health screening for people entering the terminal. This could include a temperature check for all passengers, as is seen at airports in Asia, and the compulsory wearing of face masks. He said that implementing practical steps could give passengers “… confidence that they are safe to fly”.
There should be less contact between airport workers and passengers, and between the passengers themselves. Mr Holland-Kaye said that measures will “… include fantastic hygiene in the airport with sanitisers and deep cleaning and things like that.” Having such measures in place at airports ought to give people the confidence to get flying again.
How can social distancing be implemented at airports?
How do you implement social distancing once airports begin to return to some kind of normality? Practically every aspect of traveling through an airport involves queuing — checking in, security, boarding, buying a coffee or a newspaper, and even using the toilet facilities.
There should be common international standards for health control to ensure that only low risk passengers are traveling and that there is the lowest risk of transmitting infection. When demand for travel returns, passengers need to know they are safe.